There may come a time when I no longer get a thrill out of visiting beautiful and historic Dutch towns, but that time is not the extraordinary medieval city of Middelburg, capital of the equally beautiful Zeeland region. The Netherlands sets the bar high when it comes to ‘picture-postcard-perfect’ towns, but Middelburg is special even for someone who has visited more than their fare share of picturesque places.
I travelled with my bike, intending to leisurely explore the coastline and historic communities of the region. Zeeland is a chain of low lying islands that until recently have been at the mercy of the North Sea. The character of this region and it’s people has been forged by its love-hate relationship with the ocean. Simultaneously economic lifeline and fearsome enemy, and all too often bringing devastation.
The sea regularly caused destruction, but it was German bombers (some claim French artillery) that destroyed much of Middelburg’s medieval centre during the Second World War. In May 1940, the German advance on France met stiff resistance from French and Dutch forces in Zeeland. It was a one-sided affair, the German’s swept all before them in a ferocious eight day battle.
As the struggle for Zeeland drew to a conclusion the German airforce bombed Middelburg, destroying more than 600 buildings in its historic centre. A day later Dutch forces surrendered while French troops retreated south. The good news for modern-day visitors is that the entire city centre was reconstructed after the war, retaining its medieval core.
Despite a history dating back to the 8th Century, and its role as one of the most important trading centres during the Dutch Golden Age, when it was second only to Amsterdam, Middelburg is small place. Around 50,000 people live in the city today and, were it not for the massive 90 metre tower of ‘Lange Jan’ looming over the town, arriving at the small train station might be a bit underwhelming.
Lange Jan acts as a marker to guide you into the centre. I’d set off early from The Hague and cycled to the central Markt square to get a coffee and some breakfast before exploring the town on foot. The wide open space of the Markt is ringed by cafes and restaurants, but at one end is the wonderfully ornate gothic architectural delight of the Stadhuis.
Construction of the Stadhuis started in 1452 and was only finished 70 years later. The building is decorated with numerous statues of the Counts and Countesses of Zeeland. Most of the facade survived the German bombing but the interior was gutted by fire. Restoration work started immediately after the war and the building was reopened in 1950.
The building’s grandeur is slightly undermined by a more contemporary statue in front of it: a miniature of the Markt and Stadhuis between two seats. Nothing unusual you might think. But sit on one of the seats and water pours from underneath it, making it seem as if the sitter has had an ‘accident’. It kept plenty of children happy the day I was there.
The Stadhuis is the perfect place to start an exploration of the town. After a reviving coffee it was time to find out why Middelburg is considered one of the most attractive towns in the Netherlands…